Parental incarceration contributes heavily to persistent, nationwide disparities in child well-being. Many scholars believe this effect occurs through negative changes in family relationships, both during and after incarceration. The U.S. has more incarcerated people than any other country, and over half of those 2.3 million individuals are parents. In 2006, an estimated 7.5 million children had at least one parent incarcerated or under correctional supervision. Lasting effects of parental incarceration on children include an increased rate of infant mortality as well as increased behavioral issues and mental health problems.
An Unprecedented Longitudinal Study to Evaluate Family Strengthening Programs
Reversing these negative effects, and addressing the widespread social inequality they help to perpetuate, requires an understanding of what families experience during a parent’s incarceration and what programs and policies would better support their well-being. Generating that understanding required a research effort of greater breadth and depth than previously undertaken.
On behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, a team of RTI experts led the Multi-site Family Study on Incarceration, Parenting, and Partnering. A longitudinal study of nearly 2,000 families, the study evaluated family strengthening programs and gathered information about the experiences of families during the incarceration and release of each family’s father.
Prior to this effort, nearly all prisoner reentry research followed the former prisoner exclusively. Because our study also captured the perspective of primary intimate and coparenting partners, it represents an unprecedented opportunity to expand our understanding of the challenges faced by the children and families of men serving time.
Examining the Effects of Incarceration through More Than One Lens
To accomplish our client’s goal required a large-scale, couples-based data collection effort with a highly mobile study population over a three-year follow-up period. During that time the men we followed were incarcerated, released, and sometimes re-incarcerated. The study families also frequently dealt with changes in housing and telephone access.
We first interviewed more than 1,800 incarcerated men who identified themselves as being married, in a committed intimate relationship, or in a coparenting relationship. We then asked for contact information for the primary intimate or coparenting partner. After the father’s baseline interview was completed, we contacted partners and interviewed those who agreed to participate in the study. In total, we followed 1,482 eligible families.
As part of the early interviews, interviewers also identified a “focal child”—giving priority to a child parented by both members of the study couple and who was closest in age to eight years old—about whom additional questions would be asked. By focusing on children of similar age, the study was better able to measure changes in child well-being over time.
Our work included a qualitative sub-study of couples immediately before and after the male partner’s return from prison, and analyses of recidivism and financial well-being that incorporate administrative data from state departments of correction and child support. Couples were first interviewed during the male partner’s incarceration, and again 9 and 18 months later. In the two largest sites, Indiana and Ohio, we conducted an additional 34-month follow-up interview to assess longer-term impacts.
The Demands of Studying a Mobile and Vulnerable Population
The unique design for this study was heavily informed by our previous work on large-scale longitudinal studies of people involved with the justice system and by our work with vulnerable populations. We also applied expertise in surveys of sensitive subjects to safely collect data on family experiences, which can include experiences of violence and victimization.
We employed innovative field locating strategies and trained interviewers to build a strong rapport with respondents, which resulted in high response rates for both men and women, even over the three-year follow-up period and even with those whose relationships had ended.
The beginning and end of the survey were administered using Computer-Assisted Personal Interviewing (CAPI), which helps to build rapport with the participant. Highly sensitive questions about partner violence, drug use, criminalized behavior, were administered via Audio Computer-Assisted Self-Interviewing (ACASI), which helps participants feel comfortable disclosing stigmatized experiences and reduces the risk of a confidentiality breach.
Informing Policy Change to Help Families Affected by Incarceration
This study generated an unprecedented understanding of how family relationships change in the context of a father’s incarceration, however it also defined key factors that predict positive couple and father-child relationships after a father’s release from prison or jail.
The negative effects of incarceration can be mitigated by a variety of supports, such as
- Helping families stay in touch during incarceration by providing transportation assistance, family-friendly visitation areas, and low cost telephone calls
- Ongoing education and individual and family counseling about what to expect during reentry
- Tangible assistance to get jobs, to pay housing deposits, and to pay for child care.
Our data tell us that not only are these needs not currently being met, but that financial and geographical barriers, like the high cost of telephone calls from prisons and policies that place men far away from families without transportation, impede the efforts to maintain healthy connections during incarceration and restore family relationships after release.
With this new understanding, policy stakeholders in the criminal justice and human services sectors will be better able to address some of the negative changes observed in partner and parenting relationships over the course of incarceration and after reentry into the community.
Our experts are working to share these findings with policymakers and program funders and calling attention to the specific opportunities for addressing longstanding inequities caused by incarceration that are affecting the lives of low-income minority children of in the United States.